HELENA — After a recent spring practice in Nelson Stadium, Troy Purcell reminisced about how far Carroll College has come from when he was last a fixture in the area.
Purcell grew up in Helena and played for Capital High, so the new Saints football coach has fond memories of growing up around the campus. He knows the history of the program with 40 Frontier Conference championships.
He played for former coach Bob Petrino from 1986-90, and was an all-conference player as a senior. Carroll College won four conference titles and was a regular in the postseason back then.
“This was a parking lot and this was a tennis court,” Purcell said as he pointed out various spots where development occurred. “This stadium wasn’t here before. When you look across there, that’s a pretty amazing stadium to play football in and for Carroll College. I would say it’s the best NAIA stadium in the country.”
Carroll College has come a long way, and hopes the journey continues. The school has won six NAIA national titles and 14 conference championships under previous coach Mike Van Diest while Purcell went on to forge his career, most recently as an assistant coach at NCAA Division I Idaho.
Success led to facilities growth while Purcell has been gone thanks to an excited donor base. However, Frontier Conference rivals have caught up with lights, improved locker rooms or other amenities.
Recently, the Saints suffered four straight losing seasons, and now it is Purcell’s job to get back to the program’s winning ways and re-excite fans.
To do that Purcell doesn’t want to depend on the past, but look to the future. At the same time, turning around the program could be the catalyst for the next stage of program development.
So what must come first?
In the real world, if you win they will build it. Fundraising spikes with championships.
"The community and campus support has been outstanding,” Purcell said. “It’s good to see some people I have not seen for 20-25 years showing their support. They want Carroll to be great. We want it to be great. We are here to accomplish one goal, and that’s to continue the excellence of Carroll College football.”
Athletic director Charlie Gross likes what he’s seen so far. Everything he’s witnessed and heard from the staff and athletes has been positive.
“We hired an experienced coach and he knows how and what to do,” Gross said. “He knew how important this spring is to get familiar with each.”
Purcell’s also been busy connecting with high school coaches to find the best recruits in the area. Finding the top talent makes coaching easier, so that’s been an important focus.
This is where the Saints don’t want to rely on the past. They need a new sales pitch to athletes, other than there’s an opportunity to win championships from the growing distant past.
Recruits are looking at what a college has to offer them for four or five years. That means practice areas, locker rooms, stadium atmosphere and more. More bling attracts better athletes.
How does Carroll stack up to the rest of the Frontier Conference and NAIA schools at the national level in glitz-factor?
“I think stadium-wise it does,” Purcell said. “It’s just that turf issue again. We would like to get turf and lights here. And you always want to upgrade the locker room.”
A synthetic turf field allows for better practice when it's wet or with snow on the ground. That has been a vital piece for programs around the country with various climate changes.
And lights would make scheduling practices easier. Other Carroll teams could use the field because there’s would be more time the field is available.
Getting the football team together is a challenge at Carroll because classes are scheduled throughout the day, not with the bulk of them in the morning.
Night practice can bring the whole team together as opposed to missing groups of players each workout. Or practice at 5 a.m. like the Saints have been doing this spring.
“All that stuff helps in the recruiting process and building the program up,” Purcell said. “It’s a goal to get that, we just have to see what happens and raise some money, and see what happens.”
Gross agrees with Purcell and goes even further. He would like to build an indoor facility so all the Carroll teams can train away from the winter and spring snow.
That would be a critical part to luring regional players who are tired of the cold, and bring in talented sunny-weather players. The climate wouldn't be such a deal-breaker for out-of-area recruits.
Carroll has a master plan in the works to develop the entire college for all students, and the athletic department is part of that, Gross said.
“When you look at the challenge of this spring, you have to deal with the snow and small windows to practice,” Gross said. “Down the road we can enhance our facilities to enhance our practice experience.”
While the football team prepares to win on the field, the administration is thinking about growth. If one takes the lead, the other will quickly follow.
The race is on, but it's a win-win for both sides. One just needs to get to the finish line.
“This is exciting anyway,” Purcell said of coaching the Saints. “With or without turf, we’ll put the best product as we can out there. We’ll work hard. We’ll look in the mirror at the end of the day and make sure we are doing things right.”